Forty years ago this month, on a sweltering Monday night, the Hough riot changed Cleveland forever. Hundreds of fires swept through the neighborhood as looters trashed stores, causing millions of dollars in damage. Gunfire left four dead. Dozens were injured.
It was an apocalyptic moment in the city’s history. Hough cast a pall of fear and resentment that took years to dissipate, if it ever truly passed.
Racial tension had been mounting for months by the summer of 1966. Black leaders were protesting that the school system was segregated. Murray Hill residents took to the streets to block efforts to integrate the local school. The death of a white minister, who was protesting the building of a new school that some thought would further segregate students, stunned the city.
He had been accidentally crushed by a bulldozer.
Looking back, the era seems all turmoil and violence. In the year or so before the riot, reporters from both of the city’s daily newspapers darted from one grisly act to another in a ghoulish frenzy. We learned to move with care on summer nights when bad karma waited at the corner.
A composite of those nights lingers, a memory of dim street lights, trash-strewn alleys, the smell of urban decay, the soulful yip of a lost dog and the flick-flash of the police car’s light.
Mostly we arrived after the gunfire. We found sarcastic homicide cops eating sandwiches while bent over corpses with bullet holes in the head. The cops enjoyed our grimaces and wise-cracked that a bullet could ruin a perfectly good mind.
When we finished with the cops, the editors sent us to the victim’s wife, who typically lived with three kids someplace in the trash-heap of a ghetto. If you were lucky, she already knew. If you weren’t, you got to tell the woman she was a widow.
The wife, the kids and their cries of grief in the night remain after all these years. We took all the family photos of the victim so there was nothing for the afternoon paper, our competition.
Then we found a phone to call rewrite, where a staccato voice would strip us of the facts.
“You know, kid, this is a bad address,” the voice would say. “We’ll only take a short.” Bad addresses meant the victim was black and the story had little news value.
One story melded into another and made you wonder what this was that you did for a living. Somehow, you knew the worst was yet to come.
When it did, in July 1966, it happened quickly, like a storm or an earthquake. Arsonists ran wild, creating a conflagration that lit up the skies. Murderous crossfire between the police and gunmen killed bystanders. Black rioters looted white stores.
The national media made Cleveland a front-page headline for the week. The violence and the notoriety stunned the city and created a damning question.
How could something like this happen here?
There was an obvious answer to this: Life in the ghetto seemed futile and hopeless. Couple that with the recently passed civil-rights legislation, which Washington heralded as historic, and the measure of expectation and frustration in America’s black neighborhoods was at a peak.
It was a time bomb that had ticked for a half-century.
But the city’s leadership was in denial. No one in the community could do this, they reasoned. There had to be outside conspirators or instigators. No group was more suspect than the Communists, and Cleveland, with its Middle European population for whom conspiracy was part of the culture, was easy to convince.
Surely, it was the work of the Red Menace or Black Nationalists, concluded City Hall and the police.
Two days into the riot — with 2,000 Ohio National Guardsmen occupying Hough like a foreign legion in phalanx — the editors insisted we discover the origins of the violence.
It might have been the police radio logs that led me to the Seventy-Niners’ Café at the southeast corner of Hough and East 79th Street. It was a bar run by two white brothers who served a mostly black clientele. The brothers had issues. Someone had tried to burn their car earlier in the year.
Monday, July 18, had been hot, and the bar was full. A young woman, a prostitute, entered the bar and began to solicit money for flowers for the funeral of another woman who was also a prostitute.
One of the white men behind the bar told her to leave several times, until finally his tone became threatening and demeaning. She went outside and began shouting that she had been called a “nigger.”
It was about 5 p.m., and the heat of the day shimmered off the hot asphalt. It was a bad time to drink. A man entered the bar, bought a bottle of wine and asked for some water. One of the brothers denied his request.
The man went outside and began to shout. Again the word “nigger” knifed through the assembled. The crowd grew and a frantic call was made for police, but it was too late. Years of pent-up anger, frustration and degradation erupted into a fury that swept through Hough. Rioters attacked stores, torched buildings, shot at firetrucks and rampaged through the streets.
I found this story at the Seventy-Niners’ three days after the riot began. I was white and conspicuous. It was before noon, but some people had already begun to drink.
Suddenly, in the middle of the interview, a man ran through the door and attempted to reach beneath the bar, only to have the bartender strike his arm with a baseball bat. There was a gun under the bar. The drunken man was trying to grab it.
The man was thrown out on the sidewalk and it came to me late that this was no place to linger. It also told me all I needed to know about the spark that ignited the riot.
My revelation brought no joy to the city desk. I had found no Communists, no outside agitators, no plot. I had found two sullen white men who made a living off serving liquor to black people for whom they held contempt.
It was like the victim with the bad address. The story ran deep in the newspaper.
A few months later, a grand jury comprised of some of the town’s most respected citizens investigated the riot and reported that a conspiracy was likely involved, probably including outsiders, maybe even Communists.
The report made the whole town a bad address.